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Top 10 usage errors in Nigerian English (II)

6. “Herbalist.” In Nigerian English, a herbalist is a witch doctor, a practitioner of black magic, and sometimes a ritual murderer or an enabler of ritual murder. That is not what the word means in Standard English. A herbalist, also called an “herb doctor,” is a therapist who heals sicknesses through the use of herbs. He practices “herbalism.”

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 I consulted several dictionaries to see if any of them has an entry for a meaning of a herbalist that even remotely comes close to how most Nigerians understand it. Here is the result: Webster’s Unabridged defines a herbalist as a person whose life is “dedicated to the economic or medicinal uses of plants.” Webster’s New International Dictionary defines it as someone who is “skilled in the harvesting and collection of medicinal plants.” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as someone who is “trained or skilled in the therapeutic use of medicinal plants.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged defines it as a person “who grows, collects, sells, or specializes in the use of herbs, especially medicinal herbs.” All the dictionaries also point out that botanists used to be called herbalists.

 As the reader can see, unlike in Nigeria, there is no negative connotation associated with being a “herbalist” in Standard English. A herbalist is not the same thing as a babalawo.

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7. “Offer.” The way Nigerians use this word in an educational context mystifies me to no end. Nigerian university and high school students often say they “offer” a course where other English users would say they “take” a course. For instance, in response to one of my Saturday columns deploring the discontinuation of the teaching of history in Nigerian secondary schools, someone wrote to tell me that he was the only one in his class who “offered history.” It had been a while since I heard someone say or write that, so I was initially puzzled. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that he meant he was the only one in his class who “took history” as a subject; others chose government. 

This popular misuse of “offer” in Nigerian English has real consequences for mutual intelligibility in international communication. In my December 18, 2011 column titled “Top Hilarious Differences between American and Nigerian English,” I recounted the story of a Nigerian who “wrote to tell me that an American university admissions officer was bewildered when she told him she wanted to ‘offer a course in petroleum engineering’! I told her in America-and in Britain-students don’t offer courses; only schools do. To offer is to make available. Students can’t make courses available in schools; they can only take or enroll in courses that schools offer.”

 So the school “offers” the course, the teacher “teaches” it, and the student “takes” it. A student can’t offer a course.

A similar puzzling Nigerian English phraseology is the use of the word “run” to indicate enrollment in a course of study, as in, “I am running a master’s degree in English at ABU.” That expressive choice became mainstream, at least as far I am aware, after I left Nigeria. That was why when I first heard it I thought the person who “ran” a course was the director or coordinator of the course.

This is was how the conversation went:

“Hello. I am running a postgraduate course in mass communication at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and need your help.”

“Let me get this straight first. Do I understand you to mean that you’re the postgraduate director of the mass communication program at Nsukka? If yes, what help do you need from me to run the program?”

“No, I am not a postgraduate director. I am a PhD student.”

“A student? How do you run a program as a student? Are you a student assistant to the postgraduate director?”

“No, just a student.”

“OK. So you mean you’re enrolled in a PhD program?”

“Yes, that.”

This conversation took place many years ago. Since then, I’ve heard and read many Nigerians say they are “running” a course when they mean they’re enrolled in a course. I frankly have no idea where that construction came from. But to run a department, a course, a program, etc. is to be in charge of it, to direct it, to control it.

Maybe the expression is an incompetent mimicry or misapplication of the idiom “run its course,” which is used to say that something starts, continues for a time, and then ends, as in, “We will let Buhari’s incompetence run its course so that in future Nigerians will learn not to trust deceitful people who mask their duplicity with the veneer of faux integrity.” But to use the idiom in place of “enrolled for a course” doesn’t convey the same sense.

8. “Local.” This is invariably a bad word in Nigerian English. It is often used in place of “inferior,” “uncivilized,” “crude,” “insular,” “backward,” “substandard,” etc.  But that’s not the Standard English meaning of the word. In Britain, America, Australia, and all places where English is spoken, “local” simply means belonging to a nearby place. When used as a noun it can mean a person who lives nearby. There is not the slightest whiff of inferiority in the word in all varieties of English except in Nigerian (and perhaps Ghanaian) English. 

Here is what Professor David Jowitt wrote about this in his Nigerian English Usage: An Introduction: “…‘local’ [in Nigerian English] is synonymous with a range of other adjectives, according to context: ‘parochial’, ‘narrow-minded’, ‘primitive’….By extension again, however, almost anything can be described as ‘local’: a house, a school, a piece of furniture, an agricultural implement. In all these cases the use of ‘local’ imputes inferiority to the object so described. In [Standard British English], on the other hand, ‘local’ does not have connotations of imputed inferiority; and a common use of the word is in attributed position preceded by ‘the’, e.g. ‘the local priest (=the priest serving a limited area…).”

Let me give an example to illustrate the widespread misunderstanding of the word “local” in Nigerian English. In a January 30, 2012 news report about the death of the wife of Nigeria’s former Inspector General of Police, the New York-based Sahara Reporters wrote: “Hajia Maryam Abubakar died of cancer in a local clinic in Kano.”

Several commenters berated Sahara Reporters for using the word “local” to qualify the clinic where the IGP’s wife died. Others thought the woman would have survived if she had been taken to a “standard” or “better” hospital instead of a “local” one. I will republish just two representative samples: “What a report!! What has local clinic got to do with it? Are you mocking the IG, even at the loss of his wife? How wicked can you be? When did Nigerians descend to this level?” “Why a local clinic? What’s d Acting IG doing? Her life would have been saved if she’s in a better hospital.”

By contrast, Nigerians understand the word “international” to mean “of high quality.” That is why almost every private primary and secondary school in Nigerian urban centers has “international” in its name. My first daughter used to attend a school called “Unity International School” in Abuja, although there is not a single non-Nigerian in the school. In Standard English, “international” means involving at least two or more nations.

9. “Reply me.” Nigerians almost always use this word without the preposition “to.” During a training I was invited to give reporters and editors in Nigeria sometime ago, I asked who could identify what was wrong with this headline that appeared in almost all Nigerian newspapers at the time: “Jonathan replies Obasanjo.” Nobody did. When I pointed out that it should be “Jonathan replies to Obasanjo,” the reporters and editors looked quizzically at me.

10.  “Talk less of.” This is the Nigerian English expression for “let alone” or “much less.” Even highly educated Nigerians use this expression, which is actually borrowed from Nigerian Pidgin English. Where a British and American speaker would say, “I can’t remember the title of the book we were supposed to read, let alone the details of the story,” a Nigerian speaker would say, “I can’t remember the title of the book we were supposed to read, talk less of the details of the story.” Sometimes “talkless” is written as a word. The expression probably emerged out of the misrecognition of “much less.”

 

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